Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Resurrection - If I could change one thing about American Evangelicalism...

I wrote the below for a friend and have been really chewing on it ever since. I think if I could have any theology balance our/my American evangelicalism, it would be this smattering - with its hints of Christus Victor atonement theory, death as God's enemy, and a reclaiming of the resurrection of the body as the ultimate hope for Christianity.

"I believe in the ...resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen" (Apostles' Creed).

"We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come" (The Nicene Creed).

My understanding has only recently been developed. American Christianity tends to emphasize Jesus as the perfect sacrifice/atonement for the sin and evil in the world. But an overemphasis on this, though right,
sometimes leaves out too much. This focuses too much on Jesus as divine and leaves out that Jesus is also human. A divine death and resurrection is sad, yet understandable. But Jesus as human shapes our theology, and therefore our practice, in so many other ways.

There is a more ancient understanding of what could be happening on the cross. The greatest enemy of God is not sin, humanity, or even Satan, but death. Death is not seen only as an event, but as a power, almost like an entity. So when St. Paul writes in Philippians 2, "Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross" - he was talking about death as a power. For to whom does Jesus become obedient?

Being born in human likeness means Jesus took human flesh. When he did this, he was marked for death along with the rest of humanity. But, as the Greek orthodox prayer says, "Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death..." This is why St. Paul quotes the prophet Hosea saying, "‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 15).

In dying Christ destroys death. In being resurrected he paves the way for our eventual resurrection. Though we still die, death does not have the final victory. If we understand Paul again in 1 Corinthians 15, then we will have a better understanding of the cross, death, resurrection, and Christ's work therein, "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death."

It should, finally, be noted that this area of theology is called atonement theory (how Jesus makes us at one with God). The Church universal has never settled on one theory. There have been many different ones throughout history, each containing a good (partial) understanding.
The problem with death isn't its existence but with death's ruling. "If, because of the one man’s [Adam's] trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ" (Romans 5).

Salvation, creation/new creation, and defeating of enemies is more about restoring creation that has gone awry than a huge cosmic game of chess to who is going to win.

Christ, who is God through whom all things were made, takes on the flesh of that created stuff, so that in dying God destroys the powers and principalities that enslave humanity/creation (i.e. sin, death, addiction, satan, etc.). Christ retains his human resurrected flesh, drawing creation back into the life of God through the ascension. Salvation is an earth renewal movement - not a "these people go to hell and these go to heaven." That is platonic dualism. These are the final words of God at the end of time recorded in Revelation 21, "See, I am making all things new." Salvation is about new creation of the whole earth, including and especially humans. We see this both in 2 Corinthians 5 and Romans 8:

"So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."

"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved."

This is why Jesus, at the end of the Gospel of Mark, commands us "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation." All of creation is being restored. Death has been brought down from its position as tyrant. Now it no longer has sting or victory - it no longer has the final say. Jesus rising from the dead is our ultimate proof and hope in faith.

How this shapes my faith

  • My hope is not heaven. Though the departed may be in heaven, the ultimate goal of our faith and of God's work is resurrection - literal resurrected bodies like Jesus. 
  • This shapes what it means to pray for God's kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. 
  • This shapes what eternity means. 
  • This shapes how we read the OT promises of physical blessings. 
  • This shapes how and why I work -  and to what ends. It is not about "saving souls" but about seeing people move from old creation to new creation, old humanity (Adam and Eve) to new humanity (Christ).
  • This shapes how I view the physical realm - how I view the earth and our bodies.
  • This shapes the totality of my end-times belief. Again, there is no rapture. That is a made up doctrine from the 1800's. I don't mean to be harsh, but rapture is a false doctrine. There is only resurrection. 

Edit: or just watch this -

Monday, March 25, 2013

Palm Sunday Makes Sense....

Much ink has been spilled to talk about the the crowds who, on Palm Sunday, laud Jesus as savior and on the next Friday call for his crucifixion. Suggestions have been put forward: maybe the Greek interpretation of "crowd" will show that the crowds are different on those days, or the people are just fickle, or even that it was God's will and so the people had to do this to fulfill scripture/will.

For me, Palm Sunday makes sense. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. The moment is pregnant with meaning. He simultaneously mocks the current political system, calls into question humanity's reliance on power, politics, and violence, and points to himself as the true king.

Anyone can understand this. There are a million stories just like it. It is a powerful archetype. The newest prequel to The Wizard of Oz called Oz: the Great and Powerful is based on this exact premise. A nobody from no-where shows up, seemingly fulfills the long-awaited prophecy, challenges the existing reign of the wicked witch, and is heralded as the savior of the people. And all that within the first 20 minutes. We get it, it resonates deep within us, and we love it.

And to be sure, Jesus does this. Jesus defeats the powers and principalities, sets up his own kingdom of peace, and gives the people freedom. This freedom is from the powers that oppress - outside and inside of us - the ones that destroy us and keep us from the potential we have as beings created in the image of God.

So what's the issue?

It is easy to see that the people wanted a leader of a rebellion against the current empire. It has to be in at least some of the people's mind who were waving palms in a Maccabean style and shouting for a savior when Jesus rides into town. We see this most specifically in the Barabbas episode:
Then they all shouted out together, ‘Away with this fellow [Jesus]! Release Barabbas for us!’ (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’ A third time he said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.’ But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished" (Luke 23:18-25, NRSV).
The people ask for the release of Barabbas in the place of Jesus. Not only is this story designed to plead for Jesus' innocence, but also show what the people wanted: a person who could start a rebellion and see it through with violence. Twice Luke tells us that Barabbas was in prison for insurrection and murder. He is willing to fight "the man" and back it up in a way that Jesus won't.

And this is precisely why Palm Sunday makes sense to us and Good Friday doesn't: Jesus defeats the powers, installs his kingdom, and sets us free - not in spite of his death - but through his death. For too long, and in too many churches, the cross of Christ has been seen as merely a catalyst for killing a sinless Messiah so that our sinfulness could be placed on him and his righteousness could be placed on us (double imputation). And to be fair, there is an element of truth in that. But the cross of Christ, the laying down of lives and sacrificing, is the way victory is won. Therefore, we read that Jesus "emptied himself, [took] the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him..." (Philippians 2). And by dying "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it" (Colossians 2).

Palm Sunday makes sense because we want a hero, humble, handsome, and honorable (huge? hairy?), to fight our enemies. Jesus' way of fighting is rejected because the bad guys are destroyed through self-sacrifice. It is the cruciform life, the cross-shaped life, that Christ calls us too as the only ethic for discipleship and kingdom citizens. It is here we hear our savior say, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it." (Luke 9 - see also chapter 14). True life is gained by living cross-shaped and doing so daily. It is how we find real salvation. It is how we follow Jesus.

The final question remains, what does sacrificial living look like for my everyday life? In discerning this process for yourself, I would steer you 3 ways. First, I would point to Jesus' general example. St. Peter writes, "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness..." (1 Peter 2).

Second, I would encourage you to read, absorb, and live Christ's teaching in his Sermon on the Mount/Plain found generally in Matthew chapters 5-7 and Luke 6. Jesus ends his Sermon on the Mount by saying, "‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock" (Matthew 7).

Finally, I would point out that self-sacrificing cruciformity does not necessarily mean that we let people walk all over us or we never expect any thing or help from anyone else, though it could mean that. It is more important to see this less as "doing more" while silently suffering and more as a giving of one's self wholly over to advancing the Kingdom of God on earth.